“I don’t even like black people.” My stomach dropped and I put down my fork. “I’m from Miami, I’m allowed to say that I don’t like black people,” the woman continued. Her words were loud and directed towards her friend, yet her eyes were on us. I guess my mom was right; nothing good happens after midnight.

This past Saturday, I experienced blatant racism for the first time. You would think that a black Southerner would have encountered such absurdity before —alas. I’ve mastered the art of responding to instances of shrouded racism. Comments that fall into this category are often made by people who are unaware of the racial biases that their words reveal. The actions or words that their unconscious biases propel are known as implicit racism. This is the type of racism to which I am accustomed. This is the masked and obscure problem that exists at Bowdoin.

Implicit racism is the more acceptable form of racism; it is indirect and easily concealed. Thus, it is racism in its most prevalent form. Because of this, I have not spent much time familiarizing myself with implicit racism’s bolder sibling: explicit racism. Explicit racism, wherein the offender demonstrates a conscious understanding of their racist attitude, is considered unacceptable by most members of our generation. It is the racism bred behind closed doors. Because of this, I was not prepared for The Diner Outburst.

When it happened, my friends and I laughed. By brunch the next morning, it was no longer funny, but we remained mostly unbothered. By the end of my Sunday, I had grown concerned about my reaction—or lack thereof. I realized that I was much less affected by this blatant act of racism than I had been by all of the more nuanced racially-charged incidents on campus.
On one hand, knowing that woman’s hostility would never be tolerated on our campus pushed me to view Bowdoin as a safe haven. On the other hand, her unabashed antipathy was somehow easier to swallow than the complicated—and often, anonymous—conversations and events occurring on campus. Her brazen statement was undoubtedly worse than any Bowdoin comment or event that has come to my attention; yet, it was somehow less threatening than the recent campus climate. 

The difference lies in the ways in which our society receives implicit and explicit racism. To many Americans, explicit racism is obviously wrong. When the Diner Outburst began, our waitress hurried over and apologized profusely. You do not have to be cognizant about social or racial issues (read: “woke”) to recognize an instance of explicit racism. Thus, white Americans often rally around people of color in the wake an explicitly racist incident. 

In contrast, implicit racism is convoluted. It rests on a foundation of unconscious bias, making it is much more difficult to navigate. Someone whose experiences have not forced them to recognize the signs of implicit racism may not recognize its presence. Thus, following an incident of implicit racism, people of color are often left to their own devices. To them, its presence is clear—and it falls under the definition of “racism.” To those who know only of explicit racism, the incident raises no red flags. This dissent can make a shocking, explicitly racist comment less maddening than one that reeks of toxic, yet subtle, implicit racism.

I choose to believe that our campus is mostly comprised of good people. This belief is what makes navigating conversations regarding race so incredibly difficult. When students label a comment or event “racist,” the accused immediately become defensive. As a result, conversations quickly disintegrate. In many cases, the discussion ends before it even begins. I believe that this problem stems from a faulty understanding of the distinctions between implicit and explicit racism. Students become defensive because they feel that an attack is being made on their character; in other words, their idea of “racist” aligns solely with incidents of explicit racism. 

I hope that this cycle can be reversed through a few crucial changes.  One should not assume that an offensive comment is derived from a conscious, malicious bias. Moreover, an accused person should not immediately infer that the accuser believes that your comment or action stemmed from racist intent. Unconscious bias exists in everyone; it is the byproduct of living in a racialized society. Ideally, our campus climate will shift into one that allows for productive discussion on both conscious and unconscious racial biases. Like most difficult conversations, it may not be comfortable, but it will be worthwhile.